Twelve year old Abraham Mullins opened his eyes and watched the rear wheel of his dirt bike nicknamed Old Huff, whirl in the clammy autumn breeze; the front wheel was warped and surrounded by wet leaves and dead grass. The bicycle’s frame was intact but without the front wheel Abe knew it was useless. A sharp pain slid down the young man’s back, and he sat puzzled, trying to determine what had happened.
He moaned, and his voice ebbed in the gloom of St. Thomas cemetery. Upon falling, his head fashioned a small groove into the wet ground, and except for where the lid of his eye opened, his face was covered in mud. A slight shiver crawled over him.
Machine gray clouds loomed and thunder clapped in the sky. Nearby, he heard the drone of car engines and the whisper of wind through the cemetery’s old trees. Soon other senses returned; his shoulder throbbed, and having chomped down on his tongue, he tasted the bitter-sweet tang of his blood.
Hoisting himself from the ground, he limped over and rested on an old burnt tree stump. He glanced up and watched the moon peek from behind dark clouds veiled with light sheets of rain. His mom would say the storm was toying with him. When dark clouds moved in, thunder roared and lightning searched the sky. “All that fuss,” she would say, “but you put your hand up and only a wee bit of rain fell on it.”
She’d smile at Abe and assure him, “Oh, it’s just Gods way of teasing us. He’s gotta have a little fun too.” Abe found no humor in his current situation, though. And hadn’t that same God taken his dad? His dad had died miserably (and, slowly, over the course of five years) of lung cancer. Just how far did God’s teasing go?
As he registered this thought, he heard footsteps stomp through the haze of the old cemetery. Suddenly, he remembered why he had been looking back and then crashed into the rock and tumbled. Someone was following him. The footsteps boomed through the howling wind, the rattling trees and the lingering fog. Abe tossed a sharp glance over shoulder, scanning the sloping, splotchy dirt hills. There was no one there.
The footsteps abated.
Another soft breeze sowed through the trees, leaving only the “wee bit of rain”. And then the rain ceased.
The Lord teasing me again, ma? He wondered.
Abe clamored to his feet, using the sleeve of his shirt to wipe the caked mud from his face, and that’s when he heard the staccato melody of the harmonica. And the voice,
“Bad place for a fall, kid!” The old man’s words twanged like an untuned harp.
Abe whipped his head around and saw the old man sitting across the winding pathway, up on a hill, beneath an old magnolia tree. He wore a faded, button up shirt and tattered jeans. Between his ashen hands, the polished metal of a harmonica gleamed against the moonlight. His hair was a boomerang of peppered cotton with white sideburns, and he had a long hooked nose and a narrow curved chin. He grinned at Abe and set his lips, blowing the harmonica again.
Abe was certain that the man had not been there several moments ago. He shook his head and peered through the mist to gain a better view. It was true. The old man sat there resting beneath the tree.
Abe didn’t speak, and he was apt to grab Old Huff and get the heck out of there, leaving the old fart to blow on his harmonica. But when he took a step toward the bike, the pain stung him. It shot through his back and he cried out.
The old man stopped playing long enough to glance up. He threw his head back in a wheezing cackle and watched Abe struggle. Abe took a knee, eyeballing him closely. The old man was an odd and frail fellow, and Abe was more curious than threatened by him. He thought he could take the old codger if it came to it.
“What’s so funny?” Abe hissed.
“Just tickled,” the old man said. “Your body keeps telling you to rest, and your head’s hard as that there tombstone. Get good advice, but we don’t listen.”
Abe thrust himself from the ground, still eyeballing the old man. Last thing he needed was a lecture from some grown up. He took one step to leave and placed far too much weight on his ankle. It was tender, and he winced.
“You sprained it, kid!” The old man wheezed. “It’ll ache for a spell and then swell up like a balloon.” He pointed the harmonica toward an old crumbling tombstone, not far from where Abe took the tumble. “If you had hit your head on that thing,” he paused and rested his back against the tree. “Well, let’s just say a little swelling would’ve been the least of your worries.”
Abe glanced at the tombstone. The thing would’ve split his skull. “Guess you’re right.” He looked at the old man. “Who are you?”
The magnolia tree shook its limbs, expelling a soft mist from infirm autumn leaves. In the distant black firmament, clouds smashed together and drifted like small continents while rivulets of lightning poked the sky.
“Call me Ref. That’s what my friends call me.” The old man paused and seemed to consider. “The ones still around anyways.”
Abe watched lightning crackle, closer now. Thunder boomed.
“Why are you sitting out here in the rain? A storm is coming,” Abe said, he gestured to the massive gray clouds.
Ref glanced up with a befuddled frown, as if noticing the clouds and the lightning and the roaring thunder for the first time.
“Reckon you’re right, kid. A storm’s definitely brewing.”
Abe glanced around. “Guess I better try to get home, now,” He said and started to hobble down the hill, but the rain poured in great heaps. Abe shook his head. He joined Ref under the tree. He hated cemeteries, but he had hoped to take the short cut through St. Thomas. He sighed. “I should have taken the regular way home.” He glanced toward the sky. “Maybe I’ll let the rain calm a bit, first.”
Ref threw his head back and burst into laughter. Rivers of wrinkles poured from the hooded corners of his eyes. His mouth was filled with jagged, blackened teeth, his shoulders were thin, and the collar on his tattered button-up shirt looked too big.
“Yeah, reckon you’re right, kid. Let’re calm down a bit.” He blew one long note across the harmonica. “After that, then go on. No since hanging round here, wasting your time with an old coot like, Ref.” He glanced down at the harmonica between his calloused hands. Abe thought the man looked miserable.
Abe looked towards the clouds and then back at Ref. “Shouldn’t you be trying to get home too, Ref?”
“Ain’t been home in a long time.” Ref licked his tongue across dry lips. “Reckon I forgot what it looks like.”
Far away, thunder exploded like dynamite.
“Forgot home?” Abe was astonished. And he couldn’t imagine not going home to his family. After all, it was always there. He stared at Ref for a moment. “You homeless, Ref?”
Ref appeared to ponder this. After a time, he said, “Let’s just say, I make home wherever I lay my head.”
The rain fell hard. The wind blew huge nets of mist across the distant graveyard, whistling through the trees, waving the tall, lifeless grass. Abe watched as the trees chattered, and the sky snapped several shots of the land.
The two sat beneath the trees wavering branches, up on the hill. Ref played several soothing tunes amongst the howling wind. Among them was Let The Good Times Roll—
Well come on baby let the good times roll.
Well come on baby let me soothe your soul…
He blew through a jazzy rendition of Oh Susanna, Clementine, and a personal favorite–The Great Pretender…
Abe, not recognizing any of the songs (except maybe Oh Susanna) glanced around and saw no valise or bags that held a change of clothes for the old man. How could a man so talented become homeless? Surely some band needed a good harmonica player.
His mom always told him that everyone possessed a gift to offer the world. Realizing that gift and using it was the key. And though he thought this was just another one of his mom’s anecdotes on life, there were times when he thought that she was right. How many times had he passed a homeless person at the bus depot or on the side of the road by a stoplight, or looked out the car window and saw them bunched in swaddling rags on the concrete incline under an overpass. How many? And hadn’t his heart sunk when he saw this, wishing he had the power to show them what their gift was and let them know that they didn’t have to live like that?
He glanced over to Ref, who had his head down and was blowing softly into the harmonica, his hooded eyes fixed upon the wet ground.
“Ref, you got family?”
“Course!” Ref bellowed. “Everybody’s kin to somebody,” He pushed one breath through the harmonica, one quick riff.
“Do you see them much?”
Ref looked up. “From time to time.” He set his lips and frowned. “You see, they don’t take much to me. I’m what you might call the black sheep of the fambly.” He wheezed and then coughed bitterly.
When he finally caught breath again, Ref said, “But it’s okay. Like it better this way. No putting on airs for anybody. No constraints; nobody telling me what to do and how to do it. Free, you get me?” He nodded and glanced at Abe with those beady eyes, much like black marbles pressed into boiled leather.
“Sure, sure I do Ref. I know exactly what you mean. No constraints. Do this! Do that! I’m always told what I can and can’t do, like being a slave.” Abe thought about his mom and Charlie, his stepdad, “Clean your room! Wash those dishes…cut the grass. Do your homework!” It was ridiculous. And Charlie, who chained smoked Kool 100’s, came home drunk on the weekends and propped his stinking feet on the coffee table, his big toe with the sharp nail never disappointing at slicing its way through a new hole. …Abe wasn’t even sure if the guy had a real job.
“That’s right,” Ref said. He shook his head in disgust. “That’s why I live like I do. I’d rather be free then bow down to the rules of hypocrisy.” And Abe knew exactly what a hypocrite was. His mom had told him.
“A hypocrite,” she explained once, when Abe inquired after reading the word in an old magazine as they rode along in the Impala. “A hypocrite tells you not to do something but then they go and do it themselves.” She looked at him sternly with both hands gripped on the steering wheel. “They talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk.”
Later he thought about his mom who always taught him not to tell a lie. But the same mom assured him that Santa Claus was real. And that all the gifts under the brightly lit Christmas tree were placed there by Jolly Old Saint Nick, not purchased from a department store by his mother. Hadn’t she been a hypocrite anytime she told him not to lie? They talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk, right mom?
Ref’s voice broke the thought, “What are rules anyway if people—adults; break them anytime they see fit?”
“Yeah,” Abe agreed, and nodded his head, hardly believing he’d found an adult who agreed with him. Ref blew another note on the harmonica and they both broke into laughter.
In the sneezing-rain drenched sky, the pale moon glowed beneath a thin layer of cloud. Its face shone upon the rolling headstones of St. Thomas. And Abe and Ref watched as the rain pounded the earth.
A moment passed and Ref glanced over at Abe, said, “Hey, what do you say we be friends?”
Lightning snapped, and a large crooked tree branch crashed against the wet ground several feet away.
Startled, Abe’s heart pounded his chest.
“Umm, sure, Ref,” he said, his eyes fixed on the large tree limb that had crashed to the ground. “Sure, we can be friends.”
“Not just friends, brothers! We could be blood brothers for life,” Ref promised.
Abe looked at him perplexed. “Blood brothers?”
“Yeah, like I said, never had close fambly. When you forge a blood brotherhood, it’s binding.” Ref extended one wrinkled, bone-white hand. His fingers were long and queer and on the top of his index finger one drop of blood bubbled from the edge.
He and his best friend, Robbie, had forged a bond last year, with spit. Robbie had told him that a spit bond was sacred and meant loyalty and friendship forever.
“Is it kind of like a spit bond?” Abe wanted to know.
Ref nodded. He reached into the torn pocket of his old shirt and produced a handful of gray lint. He blew the lint away and plucked a small needle from the wrinkled cup of his hand. The needlepoint twinkled in the rain reflected moonlight.
“Just like a spit bond, Abe,” said Ref.
Abe took the needle and moved the point toward the tip of his finger but then he stopped.
Thunder rolled over St. Thomas, and Abe stood under the black heavens for a moment with a quizzical look on his face.
“What’s the problem, Abe?” Ref asked. “Prick your finger let’s be blood brothers.” He grinned and watched, anxiously.
Abe slowly moved both hands to his sides. He glanced up and stared at Ref like he saw a different man.
“What is it?” Ref asked. A hint of agitation grew in his voice.
“How did you know my name was Abe?”
All about them was white with the steam of rain. Several dirt pits were overflowing with water and consequently trickled down hill in sublets, and they snaked their way through the spaces of the iron gates crested with two gargoyle statues and emptied into open drains.
Ref stumbled, now. “I’m sure you said it earlier, kid. That’s how I know.”
“I didn’t Ref.” Abe shook his head and took another step back. “I never told you my name.”
Ref shrugged. “Then I must’ve picked it up during the conversation—What’s the difference? We’re friends, right?”
Abe watched him cautiously. He dropped the needle to the ground beside his foot. “I don’t think that’s a good idea, Ref.”
Ref took a deep breath and sighed in exasperation. He fixed his gaze on the boy. “I need you to do this, Abe.” The old man’s voice was low and controlled, not the weak and frail voice which issued from his lips when they first met.
Uneasiness swelled in Abe’s stomach. It was something in Ref’s eyes. Those beady marbles now looked wide and distant and blank. Abe suddenly thought he saw a flicker of light go out in the black of them.
“You’re just like the rest of’em, huh?” Ref said. His head was down and his shoulders rose and fell with each wheezing breath.
“You okay, Ref?”
A low chortle rose from the old man.
Abe moved to where the curtain of rain stopped and the shelter of the trees began. Rain washed over his back and neck. But he never took his eyes away from Ref.
“Just like the rest of ‘em.” Ref repeated.
“I-I gotta go, Ref.”
Ref threw his head up and snarled. His face looked like the mask of a demon. Worms of veins wriggled under pale skin. His mouth twisted and when he grinned, his teeth were sharpened to fine points.
“What are you?” Abe shrieked. The rain matted his hair over his forehead. His bottom lip quivered and his eyes flared with horror.
“Reficul is the name.” He spat a particle of undigested food through one of the spaces in his teeth. “Lucifer, if you like that better.” Lightning struck the air between the old tree branches.
Abe stood with his mouth gaping, and his entire body soaked in the rain. It took a while for his brain to tell his legs to get moving. But another resounding boom of thunder decided for him.
Abe turned and scrambled down the hill, high stepping over dead tree branches and old cracked tombstones. Each time he planted his foot, a jolt of pain ran up the side of his leg.
The fear of Refucul . . . “Lucifer,” as the old man so haughtily called himself. He learned few things attending his Bible study classes at the church, but, the analogy for Satan he remembered.
Abe glanced into the thinning rain. He saw two spires that marked the entrance to the cemetery–the wrought iron gate, where the two gargoyles had sat. But the gargoyles were gone. Abe glanced a bit higher and saw both birdlike beasts rising into to the air, braying laughter and shedding the metallic shell of skin from their bodies.
The iron-gate felt miles and miles away, stretching farther and farther from his hands with every thunderous step. In haste, Abe had started running towards the front gate of St Thomas, but under the tree, he was closer to the rear of the cemetery, where he originally was headed. He was running away from home.
That didn’t matter now. All that mattered was getting away from the old man and away from the gargoyles. He was half way down the slope, when his foot fetched against a thick root and sent him sailing forward, landing hard on the ground and rolling the rest of the way downhill.
The gargoyles screamed in triumphant voices.
Abe winced. He rolled over and glanced up. The two creatures glared at him, their eyes burned like red embers in their small heads. They dove toward him.
“Get him!” a whispered voice ebbed through the darkness. “Get him, now!”
Abe’s heart turned cold in his chest. Lightning snapped and the sky opened white, filled with a million droplets of rain.
One of the gargoyles swooped on him, giggling and spreading two long curved talons. He clamped onto Abe’s shoulders.
Abe screamed in agony. The creature’s nails bit into his skin like fangs.
“Yes, yes, get him,” Ref’s voice called from the dark. Abe felt his body leave the earth, dragged along by the heels of his sneakers. They dug into the mud soaked ground.
As the beast dragged him, Abe spotted a broken tree limb extending from the ground. He grabbed it, gritted his teeth and summoned a burst of energy.
“No”! Abe cried and swung the branch, smashing it against one of the gargoyles wings, causing the beast to release his grip, and Abe fell to the ground.
The gargoyle screeched and fluttered through the air, howling and hissing in pain.
Abe glanced through the shifting rainfall for the other beast. The gray clouds were low, and the fog had thinned enough to see the areas speckled by the soft glow of the moon.
He staggered to his feet; tears flooded his eyes mixing with the rain. His heart was torn with fear and anxiety. He wanted his mom. She would know what to say and what to do. Presently, Abe wasn’t past eliciting the help of his mother’s boyfriend, Charlie. He could remember Charlie bragging about his days as an amateur boxer, and “kicking the shit” as he so colorfully added, out of some reigning champion. Of course, Abe always felt Charlie’s stories came with some critical side note that was edited out during the telling.
Something squealed in the air. Abe wheeled around and saw the second gargoyle boring down on him like a great horned owl.
Abe clutched the old branch with both hands and squared his shoulders. As the gargoyle drew near several drops of rain fell into Abe’s eyes. He lowered his head and frantically used the back of his hand to clear his sight. But it was too late.
The gargoyle snagged his arm and Abe dropped the tree branch. Then he felt the wounded gargoyle, somewhat recovered, grab the other arm with a feeble grip.
“Let me go!” Abe screamed. The gargoyles cackled as they dragged him through the air.
“Yes, yes, yes,” Ref cried, in a high, clear voice. Then the voice deepened and shook the ground. “Bring him to me!”
Abe looked where the gargoyles were taking him. Beside the tree, where the old man had sat, a source of red light bloomed from the ground. It was a pit. Tongues of red fire licked the sky and Ref released a raspy, rumbling roar of laughter.
“Bring him, bring him.” Ref mocked. “My blood brother!”
Abe swung and writhed in the air. He tugged and he pulled and used every inch of strength he could find, but the gargoyles were too strong. They were taking him to that fire hole. And they meant to pitch him inside.
The flame from the pit was extremely hot. And there was a brief moment when Abe thought, the rain, the rain! Yes the rain will extinguish the fire. It had to. But the fire bloomed higher and swept the sky.
Ref stood at the edge of the pit. His sneer made his mouth stretch wide, and the corners of it reached up and touched his curly, white sideburns. His eyes were cold and black but the small flicker that Abe noticed earlier was now a dancing flame.
“Mamma was right, Abe.” Ref said and smoke puffed from blackened lips as he spoke. “He loves to toy with ya!” He squinted toward the sky. “Loves it!”
Abe felt the grip from the injured gargoyle slacken.
“All you wanted was to hurt me!” Abe yelled.
“I want your soul!” Ref said, releasing another powdery dust of smoke. Lightning filled the sky and thunder rumbled, making Ref shrink a bit, his eyes turning toward the low-hung clouds. Then he grinned, indignantly, and said, “Can’t have the steak without killing a few cows, right?”
The weakened gargoyle fluttered and his claws held only the tip of Abe’s shirt.
Ref gazed into the fire and said, “Toss him in!”
Hot cinders floated amidst a haze of black smoke that rose from the pit. The gargoyles swung him back and forth, like a terrible game of “Red Rover”. But the weakened gargoyle released too early and Abe seized the opportunity. He used the free arm and grabbed the stronger gargoyle by the wing and yanked down.
The gargoyle screamed and went fluttering down toward the pit, holding onto Abe’s shoulder and clawing at the air. But just before they reached the hole, Abe pushed hard off of the writhing beast and flung his body toward the ledge, causing the gargoyle to plunge uncontrollably into the pit where the fire swallowed him with one satisfying gulp.
“What are you fools doing? Get him,” Ref yelled at the remaining gargoyle.
Abe suddenly understood. Ref couldn’t do anything himself. Unless, of course, Abe had offered his blood and made the friend pact. But he hadn’t. And now Ref sent his goons to drag him into the pit by force.
The wind picked up. Abe turned to the devil, “What’s wrong, Ref? Can’t do it yourself? Picked that old body and now, you can’t fight your own fights. I guess I always knew Lucifer wasn’t that bright!”
Ref glowered at him, fists clenched, black lips pulled back over pointed teeth.
“Kill him, now!” He snarled.
Abe glanced around him and found a small bed of broken tombstone and rocks. He dropped to the ground and collected as many into his shirt as he could. The gargoyle flapped feebly toward him, grasping at him from the air. Abe pelted the beast with several of the rocks and one of them landed on the injured wing.
The gargoyle screeched and flailed backwards. Abe tossed two more stones, forcing the creature away.
“Watch out you idiot! Get him over the pit.” Ref cried. Abe tossed another rock and this one popped the beast in the eye. The gargoyle pin wheeled. He was now reduced to one fully operational wing and one eye. Too weak to fly, the he landed on the ledge of the pit and swayed back and forth, inches from the blazing fire.
“Get away from the fire!” Ref cried.
Suddenly, as if tasting the leaking blood from the gargoyles damaged wing, the fire swooshed up and wrapped around him, yanking him into the fiery depths and then releasing a resounding burp.
Ref roared in the air. Pieces of his face peeled away, exposing a bloody brittle skull underneath. The fire rose from the pit and brushed across Ref like a tidal wave, devouring him and anything else in its path.
Abe shot through the graveyard, still feeling of the aching in his shoulder and his ankle. He stumbled along, falling once and getting back to his feet. He reached the wrought iron gate and it was shut, its rusted bars, a series of twisted iron and steel. But Abe scaled the gate and fell to the other side.
The fire roared high, and spread wide across St. Thomas, charring all manner of branch and grass and debris in its wake. The fire searched for a while, looking for anything left to destroy–anything not yet dead. Satisfied, it vanished, and left only thick puffs of smoke snaking through the old cemetery.
…One week later
The weeds in St. Thomas Cemetery bloomed wild as ever on the calm autumn day that Abe and his mom rolled past in the Impala. The sun washed over the tops of headstones and streamed between remaining brown and amber leaves that hung on the branches of several weather worn magnolia trees. The gargoyles set atop the rusted wrought iron gate in their accustomed places, guarding the entrance.
Abe Mullins hit the button on the passenger side window and it slid down and vanished into the door. His eyes raked over the cemetery, not believing what they saw. He had begged his mom not to take this route past the cemetery. And as far as he was concerned he never wanted to past by St. Thomas again. But she just kept babbling on to whoever was on the other end of the cellphone line, periodically throwing her hand in the air to gesture a point that the listener would never see.
Since his encounter at St. Thomas, Abe found that his relationship with his stepdad and his mom had improved. The experience changed Abe’s look on life and he saw a welcome change in his parents. No more fighting and arguing over the small stuff. Abe’s grade’s had improved—he went from a D- to a B+–something his mother had told him she knew he could do. He found himself happy to have his parents around, appreciative in more ways than he could explain. Near death will do that to you, he supposed.
But now as Abe Mullins sat in the car and ponder this, he was astonished that the old cemetery that had traumatized him so badly, and that he hadn’t laid eyes on in almost a week, looked as if nothing had ever happened.
The ground was dry, but not charred from fire. It was green and yellow with weeds in the same places. The rank grass, the trees, the dandelions that littered the winding cobblestone pathway was all there. And even if one week was enough for the soil to recover from a massive burning, which Abe doubted–what about the gargoyles? —chrissake, how could they still be there. Hadn’t he pitched them both into the fiery hole from hell? Had he dreamed it? Abe shrank back from the window as the car turned a corner and passed close to the entrance where the sentinel-like gargoyles perched. No, he hadn’t dreamed it. He had the scars to prove it.
His mom pressed the end call button on her phone and glanced over at him. “What’s with you? Your face is white as ivory,” she said and frowned.” It’s like you saw a ghost.”
She glanced past Abe through the passenger window, where he was still gaping out. She regarded him for a moment, both hands on the steering wheel and looked forward again. Abe knew she could tell something was wrong.
“And what was all that ballyhoo about not coming this way?” she asked.
Abe just stared across the cemetery as she turned onto Washington and headed toward home.
“Nothing, ma, I guess it was all nothing.” He was about to roll up his window when he glanced back over his shoulder once more and saw the old man, Ref, sitting under the same old tree blowing the harmonica.
Abe sucked in breath and his mouth hung open. Definitely the same old man: the peppered boomerang of hair, the red and black plaid shirt, the harmonica. It was Lucifer!
Ref looked up from the harmonica and grinned, exposing blackened, pointed teeth. Abe blinked and wiped his eyes to get a better look. But when his vision was clear, and he had nearly turned completely around in his seat, no one was there. The magnolia tree sat stoically, waving his branches up on the hill.
A gentle breeze sowed through the window and with it, a mock whisper slid over Abe’s ear.
It said, “Blood brothers, Abe–Blood brothers.”
A light cackle vanished with the wind.